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Political identity from dissimilar cognitive biases

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Very interesting column by Paul Rosenberg in Salon:

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, it marked the first time in 70 years that conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of government. By the time Bush left office, we were all reminded why. The financial crisis and resulting global economic meltdown Bush left us with were eerily reminiscent of the Great Depression, but there was also 9/11, the Iraq War and Katrina—a multifaceted record of spectacular failure so stunning that it should have disqualified conservative Republicans from holding power for at least another seven decades.  Yet, the Democrats’ political response to the many messes Bush left behind has been so spectacularly inept that they’ve not only lost both houses of Congress, they’ve also lost more state legislative seats than any time since before the Great Recession.

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs—and certainly the rise of Wall Street Democrats and the decline of labor played crucial roles. But beyond any particular issue area, there’s also the matter of differences in how liberals and conservatives think—and how they act and organize as a result.

As I’ve written before, a growing body of literature reveals that liberals and conservatives think differently from one another in ways that can even be traced back, in part, to the level of instinctual response, reflecting conservatives’ heightened sensitivity to threat bias. This work is congruent with an integrated multi-factor account offered by John Jost and three co-authors in the 2003 meta-analysis “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” In their abstract, they explained,  “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” Their meta-analysis integrated findings from 88 sample studies in 12 countries, with 22,818 individual subjects—meaning it drew on a substantial body of work by others.

Yet, once publicized, it drew such a hostile response there was even talk of Congress defunding the entire field of research into political attitudes. In response, Jost and one co-author wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed, which defused the crisis. In it, they wrote:

True, we find some support for the traditional “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity — all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.

This statement underscores the point that liberal cognitive tendencies can be as problematic in their way as conservative ones are.

The multi-factor distinction Jost and his colleagues analyzed is roughly congruent with a broader distinction, discussed by Chris Mooney in”The Republican Brain” (which  I wrote about here), related to two of the “Big Five” personality traits—conservatives score higher on conscientiousness, while liberals score higher on openness to new experience.

As these few examples suggest, there are multiple ways to characterize the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. For instance, Mooney argued that liberals, still fundamentally inspired by the Enlightenment promise of ever-growing knowledge about the world, are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason, which they see as knowledge- and truth-seeking. But modern cognitive science teaches us that our brains are much more fundamentally shaped by the need to make persuasive arguments, which only require the appearance of rational argument.

In “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong illuminates a slightly different, though related, difference, contrasting the modalities of mythos and logos. As Armstrong explains, logosis concerned with the practical understanding of how things work in the world, whilemythos is concerned with ultimate meaning. Either modality can be used by liberals and conservatives alike in their everyday lives. But macro-historically, there’s been a distinct bias—and weird twist on top of it—at least since the dawn of the modern era. That’s whenlogos began becoming so all-pervasive that it seemed destined to dislodge mythos, and some defenders of mythos (now commonly known as fundamentalists) fought back paradoxically by assuming the framework of logos, and arguing that their mythos was literally true—a move that true traditionalists would have found to be deeply in error, because it devalued the essential purpose of mythos.

The congruence with Mooney’s argument is obvious: There’s a clear kinship betweenlogos and the Enlightenment model of reason on the one hand, and mythos and persuasion on the other. If conservatives under George W. Bush once again proved themselves incompetent in the logos of governing, liberals under Obama proved themselves incompetent in its mythos.

Or so I hypothesized. But I wanted to check things out with perhaps the world’s leading expert on incompetence, psychologist David Dunning, the senior researcher in the team that discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect, which Wikpedepia defines as “a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Wikipedia added that “This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Or, as Dunning explained to Errol Morris, writing an essay series, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” for the New York Times, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”  A recent article by Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” provides both humorous and serious examples showing just how pervasive the problem is.

Like many, I first learned of the Dunning-Kruger effect from that NYT series—and made some observations based on it at the time. There are obvious conclusions one can draw from the Dunning-Kruger effect: perhaps most important, that none of those obvious conclusions will apply to your own shortcomings, even though those are the ones that ought to concern you most. But this is specifically an individual effect, and my observation was about groups—and rather large ones, at that. So in reaching out to talk with Dunning, behind any specifics, I had two questions in mind: Could it apply to groups as well as individuals? And was it possible to do something about it?

In both cases, he answered yes, but some of the specifics surprised me. Which is just what I should have expected—to discover some limits of my own understanding. (Dunning himself has referenced Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase “unknown unknowns” to describe what we’re up against, just by the very nature of being human. But don’t have a cow, man. He’s also referenced Socrates, as well.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. An example that came readily to mind was the GOP’s claims to have 46 jobs bills that had passed the House, and were languishing in the Senate. If only Obama and Harry Reid would act on them!  The reality, of course, is that these bills would not actually do very much in the way of job creation, as critics have pointed out repeatedly over the past several years. In late October, the New York Times even interviewed some top GOP economists who admitted as much, along with independent analysts who said it would be hard to measure much impact.

In short, the GOP “jobs bills” aren’t seriously intended to create jobs. They’re intended to create talking points about creating jobs — and to counter Democratic talking points (while also doing favors for GOP donors, of course). They reflect both the persuasive nature of human cognition highlighted by Chris Mooney, and the meaning-making function of mythos described by Karen Armstrong. They might not create many jobs, I noted early in my conversation with Dunning—it’s aggregate demand that’s the primary driver in doing that—but they do resonate with the “job creator” mythos, which has been so prominent in conservative circles these past several years, and which makes perfect sense in the world of small businessmen I’ve known.

Dunning thought it was an apt example. He noted that people are often perplexed over where a never-ending, chicken-and-egg cycle begins. “You have business people, they don’t just decide there is going to be a market, they respond to the market, they respond to a demand,” Dunning said. “But they start the process where they enter the picture … People tend to think of themselves sort of as creators who come in and are imposing their will and their desires on the environment, and sort of filter out the conditions that they are really reacting to. They can recognize it pretty accurately for everybody else, they just miss that for themselves. Which I think is interesting.”

Understanding an example of how conservatives’ thinking leads them astray is the easy part, however. It helped to get our thinking in sync. But the real challenge would be making sense of how liberals and Democrats make comparable kinds of errors—errors they cannot see. And here is where things had to get a bit tricky, since

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 9:52 am

Posted in Politics, Science

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